Pipestone Carvers Preserve Native Spiritual Tradition Revered on the Minnesota Prairie

PIPESTONE, Minn. (AP) — Beneath the tall prairie grasses outside this southwestern Minnesota town lies a valuable layer of dark red pipe stone that Native Americans quarried for thousands of years and carved into pipes essential for prayer and communication with the Creator.

Only a dozen Dakota carvers remain in the predominantly agricultural area bordering South Dakota. While tensions have erupted periodically over the extent of rare artifact production and sharing, many Dakotas today are focused on how to pass on to future generations a difficult skill set inextricably linked to spiritual practice.

“I would be very happy to teach anyone…and the Spirit will be with you if you are destined to do so,” said Cindy Pederson, who began learning to carve from her grandparents there. six decades old.

A member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Nation, she regularly holds carving demonstrations at Pipestone National Monument, a small park that encompasses the quarries.

In the worldview of the Dakota peoples, sometimes called Sioux, “the sacred is woven” into the land where the Creator placed them, said Iyekiyapiwin Darlene St. Clair, a professor at St. Cloud State University in central Minnesota. .

But some places have special relevance, because of events that took place there, a stronger sense of spiritual power, or their importance in origin stories, she added.

These quarries of a unique variety of red pipe stone check all three – starting with a story of enemy tribes laying down their arms to enable extraction, with several stories warning that if fighting broke out for the scarce resource, it would become unavailable. for everyone.

The colorful prayer bonds and flags hung from the trees along the paths that lead around the pink and red rocks testify to the continued sacredness of the space.

“It was always a place to go to pray,” said Gabrielle Drapeau, a cultural resource specialist and monument park ranger, who started coming here as a child.

From his elders in the Yankton Sioux tribe of South Dakota, Drapeau grew up hearing one of the many origin stories of the pipe stone: in time immemorial, a great flood killed most of the people in the area. , their blood seeping into the stone and turning it red. But the Creator came, declared it a place of peace and smoked a pipe, adding that this is how people could reach it.

“It’s like a tangible representation of how we can connect with Creator,” said Drapeau. “All the people before you are represented in the stone itself. It’s not just stone willy-nilly.

Pipes are widely used by indigenous peoples of the Great Plains and beyond, whether by spiritual leaders or individuals for personal prayer of healing and thanksgiving, as well as to mark rites of passage such as vision quests and the solemnity of ceremonies and gatherings.

“Pipestone has a special relationship with our spiritual practice – praying with pipes, we take very seriously,” St. Clair said.

It is believed that the pipe itself becomes sacred when the pipe stone bowl and the wooden stem are joined. The smoke, tobacco or prairie plants, then carries the prayer from a person’s heart to the Creator.

Because of this crucial spiritual connection, only people enrolled in federally recognized tribes can obtain mining permits at the monument, with some coming from as far away as Montana and Nebraska. Within the tribes there is disagreement over whether pipes should be sold, especially to non-natives, and pipe stone used to make other art objects like animal figures carved.

“The sacred is going to be defined by you – it’s between you and the Creator,” said Travis Erickson, a fourth-generation carver who has worked pipe stone in the region for more than two decades and takes a less restrictive view. “Everything on this Earth is spiritual.”

His first job in the quarries, at the age of 10, was to drill and remove the layers of harder-than-steel quartzite covering the pipestone joint – then about six feet down, now over 18 feet in the quarry, so the process can take months. Only hand tools may be used to avoid damage to the pipeline.

Taken out in sheets about a few centimeters thick, it is then carved using flint and files.

“The stone speaks to me,” added Erickson, who fashioned pipe bowls in different shapes, like horses. “Most of these pipes showed what they wanted to be.”

Growing up in the 1960s, Erickson remembers that pipe making was a family affair where the day often ended with a festive grill. He taught his children, but laments that few young people want to undertake the hard work.

The same goes for Pederson, whose younger family members have shown interest, including a granddaughter who hung around his studio from the age of 3 and emerged “pink from head to toe. “Stone dust.

But they believe the tradition will continue as long as they can share it with young natives who may have their first encounter with this deep history during field trips to the monument.

On a recent trip, Pederson’s brother, Mark Pederson, who also runs demonstrations at the visitor center, took several young visitors to the quarries and taught them how to wield hammers – and many have asked to come back, she said.

Teaching quarrying and carving techniques is critically important, as is helping young people develop a relationship with the pipe stone and its place in the Indigenous worldview.

“We have to care about this as the people of Dakota — all of the cultural messages that young people are getting are moving away from our traditional ways of life,” St. Clair said. “We have to hold on to the teachings, the prayers, the songs that make the pipes be.”

From new exhibits to bespoke school excursions, recent initiatives at the monument – ​​undertaken in consultation between tribal leaders and the National Park Service – attempt to foster this awareness among indigenous youth.

“I remind them that they have every right to come here and pray,” said Drapeau — a crucial point since many Indigenous spiritual practices were systematically suppressed for decades after 1937, when the monument was created to preserve quarries from land encroachment.

Some areas of the park are only open for ceremonial use; the 75,000 annual visitors are asked not to interfere with the quarries.

“The National Park Service is the newcomer here – for 3,000 years different tribal nations have come to mine here and developed different protocols to protect the site,” said park superintendent Lauren Blacik.

One change made following extensive consultation with tribal leaders is the park’s decision to no longer sell pipes at the visitor center, although other pipe stone items do, such as small turtles or owls carved. Pipes are available at stores a few miles from downtown Pipestone.

Tensions over the use of sacred pipes by non-natives long predate the United States, when French and English explorers traded them, said Greg Gagnon, an Indian studies scholar and author of a textbook on culture. dakota.

“Nobody wants their world to be taken over. The more you open it, the more legitimate the fear of watering it down,” he said. But there is also a danger in entrenching oneself in dogmatic ways of understanding traditions, added Gagnon.

For carvers like Pederson, the good intentions and spirit at work in both those who practice the craft and those who receive the pipe stone are reasons for optimism about the future.

“Grandmother and grandfather always said the stone takes care of itself, knows what’s in a person’s heart,” she said.


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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